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MEMOIR OF A VISIONARY
By Antonia Pantoja
Arte Público Press
Copyright © 2002 Antonia Pantoja.
All rights reserved.
It was September 9, 1996, and I was flying from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Washington, D.C., to be one of the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from William Jefferson Clinton, president of the United States. As I sat in the airplane thinking about this event in which I was about to participate, many pieces of my life pushed through in my mind. One of these thoughts repeated itself. I am seventy-five years old! How does this recognition come to me at this age? Am I really deserving of it? Who am I to receive such recognition from the United States? Who am I?
I am the same person whom my aunt taught to read in the living room of our old house in Barrio Obrero before I was five years old. I am the same person who used to walk miles to high school with holes in the soles of her shoes. I am the same person who was pulled out of her first year of high school because the doctors, who tested all students in the school, found tuberculosis in her lungs. I am the same person who would go on horseback to teach in a rural school in the mountains of our island.
As I sat in the plane on my trip to Washington, D.C., enumerating my work with my community in the resolution of problems suffered by us and by others who are excluded, I concluded that I did deserve the medal and that I should feel the satisfaction of being recognized for my work while I was still alive.
The next morning in an impressive room at the White House, President Bill Clinton placed a medal over my head, and, in doing so, he praised my work with my community, with special recognition for my work with ASPIRA.
When I was a small child attending school in the second grade, every time I had to talk of answer questions about my parents' name, I was caught in a state of fear because I did not know if I would make a mistake. I had to first stop and think, "Who is my mother?" Was she the old lady that I called Mamá who was actually ray grandmother? Of was it Alejandrina, my mother by birth? This turmoil and nervousness would be in me before I could answer the question. I would always end up asking myself, "Who is my mother? Who is my father?" The nervousness and embarrassment would lead to my silence, because I did not know my father's name.
Other children answered immediately. I worried that I would appear stupid to my teachers. I was always concerned about being seen as stupid because I wanted to be viewed as an intelligent person. Soon the moment came when I decided not to be caught in the confusion any longer. I was eight years old. I announced to my family that I would take the birth date of September 13, 1921. With this act, I became clearly and without a doubt Antonia Pantoja Acosta, daughter of Conrado Pantoja Santos and Luisa Acosta Rivera. However, I requested that my family celebrate my birth date at home on June 13. Since my actual birthdate was 1922, I was making myself one year older, but I liked that. I told myself to always remember that my mother was Alejandrina Pantoja.
This struggle for identity began and continued for years into my adult life. How did all this confusion begin? I was born the child of Alejandrina, an unwed mother. Out of shame, my grandparents took the responsibility of bringing me into their life as their daughter by registering me in the official documents on a different date than the actual birth date. As I understand the story, my grandfather had a friend who worked in the registry, and with his assistance, I was registered again a year earlier. I do not know why the birth date was changed. I can only guess that an entirely fictitious date was chosen to disassociate me from the illegitimate birth date.
The confusion about me would continue as others spoke about me in my presence. They would stumble over how old I was of how my first name, Antonia, was chosen. To give a name to a child in a Catholic country, you needed to consult the official church book of saints to locate the saint of your birthday. June 13 is St. Anthony's day, so I was named Antonia. No one ever explained my situation to me. I carried the different stories inside me and tried over many years, from time to time, to find an appropriate moment to ask my mother who my father was and why she had such difficulty dealing with the reality of me in her life. I never did. To this day, I regret not having had this conversation with her. I still feel angry at myself for having resorted to the indirectness and mendacity that is so prevalent in the Puerto Rican culture that prevents the asking of questions considered embarrassing to others.
These strange circumstances around my parentage did not, however, totally destroy my sense of worth and dignity. My grandmother would constantly tell people the story of how I was born. I was present several times when she told people that I was born in a zurrón (a bag made of skin). I tried to find out the meaning of being born in a zurrón. Someone whom I do not remember told me that children were born in a sack full of a liquid when they came out of their mother's body. It turns out that being born in a zurrón meant that you came out of your mother's body in the sack that did not break to release the liquid. The midwife had to be fast to break the sack so that the baby would not suffocate during the delivery. I learned that I was in jeopardy at birth and that the midwife had saved my life. From then on, my grandmother would always end the story by saying that I was a person with a special destiny. I did not know what this meant, but I imagined that it meant that my experiences would be different from those of other people. When my grandmother tried to place a pendant around my neck with the dried zurrón in an embroidered bag, I refused vehemently to submit to her efforts. They said that the bag represented my luck because I was spared death. My grandmother put the bag away with her things, and I never knew what became of it.
My grandmother, who had a great influence on me during those early years, truly believed that I had a special destiny. She would call me into the parlor when visitors came and she would say, "Toñita, show them your hands. You see, she has a special destiny. You can see it in her hands." Who could not believe this type of vaticinio (prophecy)? I believed my grandmother, and I acted the part.
When I remembered this, years later, I realize that my grandmother recognized early on that I was a child with great curiosity, intelligence, and sensitivity. She could not voice this in these words and could only translate it into "a special destiny." From very early in my childhood, I would speak about events and relationships that I would observe. I never used baby talk. I was the kind of child who would comment on events and participate in conversations adults were conducting.
My friend Mina tells me that I am an excellent storyteller with an amazing ability to remember in detail incidents of my early life. This is true. I am amazed by this myself. As I reflect on the extent of my recall, I attribute it to the fact that I lived my very early years as an observer of my surroundings. I lived as a child with the ability to observe, analyze, and interpret what was happening to me and others in my family. My life as a young child was full of much activity, tangled relationships, and the unresolved questions surrounding my birth. As a child, I needed to make decisions and find solutions to issues and events that were never addressed by the adults in my world. I knew that I must be the maker of who I would become. The stories of the members of my family and my reactions and interactions with them have impressed upon me, both directly and indirectly, the values, attitudes, and ideas that have shaped my entire life. In spite of the paucity in their own lives, they transmitted to me a sense of value for myself and a determination to be self-sufficient and independent. These persons helped to develop and nurture the adult I would become.
At this point in my life, as I remember my grandmother and grandfather, I realize how very important they were in my becoming who I am. These two people made their daughter's illegitimate child one of their children. My grandfather, who is more an invented figure in my memory, was to me a generous and loving man. He was also an intelligent human being who made himself by learning, reading, and discussing with his friends issues that were important to his life. He was a foreman in his factory. Grandfather talked about the sindicatos (labor unions). He owned many pamphlets and booklets. I remember some that were training books from unions in Spain and France and a booklet of Lenin's, "Letters to the Workers." My early awareness of the rights of workers began with my grandfather's reading material.
One incident of his union life was deeply important in my mind. It was about seven-thirty at night. Several men brought my grandfather into the house. His feet were wrapped in large gauze with a yellow medicine showing through. They said that strikebreakers had come to the friquitín (a place where fritters, made of flour and codfish or made of green plantains with meat, were cooked in very hot oil) and had thrown a large iron cauldron full of hot lard at my grandfather. Friends had taken him to the community health clinic to receive medical attention for the burns on his feet. The doctor said that, miraculously, his abdomen and legs were not seriously burned because he was wearing heavy denim coveralls. His feet, however, were severely burned from the hot lard that went into his shoes. Everyone reported that the strike was on! Strikebreakers and guards from the company had beaten many men. Finally, after many weeks, the news came from the workers on the picket line that large trucks had come to the factory buildings and men had moved the machinery and furnishings in crate boxes. These boxes were to be removed from the island on a freighter ship. Congregating in the street in front of my house with a large group of defeated workers, I heard my grandfather say, "The sons of bitches, bastards. All we were asking for was a few cents more to feed our families." I will never forget the company's name: The American Tobacco Company. The workers had won their strike, but the company removed the source of employment from Puerto Rico. From then on, years of hunger and very bad economic and health conditions came upon our family because my grandfather, my Aunt Juanita, and my mother were unemployed. This was not only the beginning of the destruction of one family, but the situation befell many families in Barrio Obrero.
I remember my grandfather as a dapper dresser. He wore spats over his shoes, a vest, and a beautiful watch that had a chain you could see across his vest. Whenever he went out, he would use a cane that had a head of a dog with two little red stones for eyes. He was a small man. His hair was thin and fine. As a child, I thought that he was a handsome man who was very proud. He had lots of friends who liked him very much.
My grandfather lived until I was six years old. His death created a big difference in our lives. When Grandfather worked, I can remember that we had electricity in the house. He would go shopping, and a young delivery boy would bring a box full of food back to our family. Grandfather showed affection toward Grandmother, although she would shy away from his overtures. When he came home from work and she served dinner, he complained very loudly, half in jest and half angry, that he did not get enough food because she was always giving food to our neighbors on both sides of the house. He would say, "I am a hardworking man. I need a large pork chop of a steak. This little thing will fit in my molar." While he did this, my grandmother would hum a tune and walk back and forth from the kitchen to the dining area. I often observed these interactions and the connections between them, and I concluded that this is a very effective way to deal with men when they become angry: ignore them and go about your business. Thus, at an early age, I became aware of power dynamics in male and female relationships and of the need for women to learn how to deal effectively with men in power situations.
Every evening after eating his dinner, Grandfather would more to a rocking chair in the living room to read the newspaper, smoke a cigar, and drink his cup of black coffee. I would sit nearby to wait until he would call me to give me his cup in which he would leave a little coffee with a lot of sugar from the many spoonfuls that he would use. While I waited for him to finish, the large smoke rings rising over the newspaper fascinated me. I also watched very intensely as large gray ash formed at the end of Iris cigar and anticipated its fall to the floor. These were very peaceful and happy moments for me. One day he said to me, "I want you to remember that you carry my name. I want you to honor it!" This is a memory that I will never forget. Grandfather always called me Toñita, a diminutive name for Antonia, but when he was angry he called me Antonia with a thundering voice. I respected and loved him very much.
Grandfather was the strong pillar that held the family together. He and his childrenConradito, José Belén (who died from pneumonia after going to New York with my mother), Aunt Juanita, and my motherall worked at the American Tobacco Company in Puerta de Tierra. The whole family worked there except for Aunt Magui, who usually worked at home, but once worked at a hair-net factory.
Grandfather's income as a skilled worker was the basic income to support the household. Although my uncle continued to support the family after my grandfather's death, he seemed to earn, less money. When Grandfather died, our house deteriorated. There was never enough food. Meat disappeared from our meals. Rarely was there any milk. In addition to these changes in the family's meals, the furniture in the house began to disappear. I could never determine if it was sold or it just fell into disrepair and was discarded. We had few types of linen for the beds. I had a pillow and a sheet that was washed again and again. During the time that my grandfather lived, we were not rich, but I had a sense that I was being taken care of very well. With his death, a new period began. While Grandfather's death brought many changes inside the home, we remained the Pantoja family, and the respect that he had earned continued to be given to us.
My grandmother was the person with whom I spent much time. She died after I became an adult, so I have memories of her from my childhood and into my adult life. She was cantankerous and critical of everybody. She was not loving. You could feel a distance from her. As a child, I would challenge her, and I knew that she took things from me that she would not take from anyone else. I would contradict her and question her criticism of me.
My grandmother was a frail, skinny, small woman, darker than her mother. She objected very strongly to anyone taking a picture of her. She was very superstitious. I think that she carried ideas from the old days when she was a young woman. Sometimes, she would take me to her sister, Damiana, who lived by Bus Stop 25 on a street that they called "La Revuelta del Diablo" (The Devil's Revolt). Damiana owned a farm with a large wooden house and many children lived with her. Much later, I would learn how my family had no legal papers of ownership, and lost this land only to become renters and eventually to be displaced. The story of their loss of land is very similar to the loss of land by African Americans in the South and Mexican Americans in the Southwest. The area is now heavily developed with beautiful homes and a large government center.
Excerpted from MEMOIR OF A VISIONARY by Antonia Pantoja. Copyright © 2002 by Antonia Pantoja. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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